Astrophysicists announce discovery that could rewrite story of how galaxies die

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF PHYSICS.ORG)

 

Astrophysicists announce discovery that could rewrite story of how galaxies die

Astrophysicist announces her discovery that could rewrite story of how galaxies die
This artist conception depicts an energetic quasar which has cleared the center of the galaxy of gas and dust, and these winds are now propagating to the outskirts. Soon, there will be no gas and dust left, and only a luminous blue quasar will remain. Credit: Michelle Vigeant

At the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis, Missouri, Allison Kirkpatrick, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, will announce her discovery of “cold quasars”—galaxies featuring an abundance of cold gas that still can produce new stars despite having a quasar at the center—a breakthrough finding that overturns assumptions about the maturation of galaxies and may represent a phase of every galaxy’s lifecycle that was unknown until now.

Her news briefing, entitled “A New Population of Cold Quasars,” takes place Wednesday, June 12, on the 2nd floor of the St. Louis Union Station Hotel.

A quasar, or “quasi-stellar radio source,” is essentially a  on steroids. Gas falling toward a quasar at the center of a galaxy forms an “accretion disk” which can cast off a mind-boggling amount of electromagnetic energy, often featuring luminosity hundreds of times greater than a typical galaxy. Typically, formation of a quasar is akin to galactic retirement, and it’s long been thought to signal an end to a galaxy’s ability to produce .

“All the gas that is accreting on the black hole is being heated and giving off X-rays,” Kirkpatrick said. “The wavelength of light that you give off directly corresponds to how hot you are. For example, you and I give off infrared light. But something that’s giving off X-rays is one of the hottest things in the universe. This gas starts accreting onto the black hole and starts moving at relativistic speeds; you also have a magnetic field around this gas, and it can get twisted up. In the same way that you get solar flares, you can have jets of material go up through these magnetic field lines and be shot away from the black hole. These jets essentially choke off the gas supply of the galaxy, so no more gas can fall on to the galaxy and form new stars. After a galaxy has stopped forming stars, we say it’s a passive dead galaxy.”

But in Kirkpatrick’s survey, about 10 percent of  hosting accreting supermassive  had a supply of cold gas remaining after entering this phase, and still made new .

Astrophysicist announces her discovery that could rewrite story of how galaxies die
An optical blue quasar at a lookback time of 7 billion years (this is not a nearby galaxy). Normally, something like this would not have infrared emission. Credit: Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey DR7/NOAO

“That in itself is surprising,” she said. “This whole population is a whole bunch of different objects. Some of the galaxies have very obvious merger signatures; some of them look a lot like the Milky Way and have very obvious spiral arms. Some of them are very compact. From this diverse population, we then have a further 10 percent that is really unique and unexpected. These are very compact, blue, luminous sources. They look exactly like you would expect a supermassive black hole to look in the end stages after it has quenched all of the star formation in a galaxy. This is evolving into a passive elliptical galaxy, yet we have found a lot of cold gas in these as well. These are the population that I’m calling ‘cold quasars.'”

The KU astrophysicist suspected the “cold quasars” in her survey represented a brief period yet to be recognized in the end-phases of a galaxy’s lifespan—in terms of a human life, the fleeting “cold quasar” phase may something akin to a galaxy’s retirement party.

“These galaxies are rare because they’re in a transition phase—we’ve caught them right before star formation in the galaxy is quenched and this transition period should be very short,” she said.

Kirkpatrick first identified the objects of interest in an area of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the most detailed digital map of the universe available. In an area dubbed “Stripe 82,” Kirkpatrick and her colleagues were able to visually identify quasars.

“Then we went over this area with the XMM Newton telescope and surveyed it in the X-ray,” she said. “X-rays are the key signature of growing black holes. From there, we surveyed it with the Herschel Space Telescope, a far infrared telescope, which can detect dust and gas in the host galaxy. We selected the galaxies that we could find in both the X-ray and in the infrared.”

Astrophysicist announces her discovery that could rewrite story of how galaxies die
The dust emission of the same blue-quasar galaxy. It is surprisingly bright — in fact, it’s one of the brightest objects in the field, indicating a lot of dust. Due to the resolution of the telescope, we cannot see what that dust actually looks like. Credit: Herschel/ESA

The KU researcher said her findings give scientists new understanding and detail of how the quenching of star formation in galaxies proceeds, and overturns presumptions about quasars.

“We already knew quasars go through a dust-obscured phase,” Kirkpatrick said. “We knew they go through a heavily shrouded phase where dust is surrounding the supermassive black hole. We call that the red quasar phase. But now, we’ve found this unique transition regime that we didn’t know before. Before, if you told someone you had found a luminous quasar that had a blue optical color—but it still had a lot of dust and gas in it, and a lot of star formation—people would say, ‘No, that’s not the way these things should look.'”

Next, Kirkpatrick hopes to determine if the “cold quasar” phase happens to a specific class of galaxies or every galaxy.

“We thought the way these things proceed was you have a growing black hole, it’s enshrouded by dust and gas, it begins to blow that material out,” she said. “Then it becomes a luminous blue object. We assumed when it blew out its own gas, it would blow out its host gas as well. But it seems with these objects, that’s not the case. These have blown out their own dust—so we see it as a blue object—but they haven’t yet blown out all of the dust and gas in the host galaxies. This is a transition phase, let’s say of 10 million years. In universal timescales, that’s really short—and it’s hard to catch this thing. We’re doing what we call a blind survey to find objects we weren’t looking for. And by finding these objects, yes, it could imply that this happens to every galaxy.”

“One Trillion Times Age Of The Cosmos”–Rarest Thing Ever Detected

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ‘DAILY GALAXY’)

 

“One Trillion Times Age of the Cosmos” –Rarest Thing Ever Detected

 

Cluster Abell 3827

 

“We actually saw this decay happen. It’s the longest, slowest process that has ever been directly observed, and our dark matter detector was sensitive enough to measure it,” said Ethan Brown, an assistant professor of physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It’s an amazing to have witnessed this process, and it says that our detector can measure the rarest thing ever recorded.”

How do you observe a process that takes more than one trillion times longer than the age of the universe? The XENON Collaboration research team did it with an instrument built to find the most elusive particle in the universe—dark matter. In a paper to be published tomorrow in the journal Nature, researchers announce that they have observed the radioactive decay of xenon-124, which has a half-life of 1.8 X 1022 years.

The XENON Collaboration runs XENON1T, a 1,300-kilogram vat of super-pure liquid xenon shielded from cosmic rays in a cryostat submerged in water deep 1,500 meters beneath the Gran Sasso mountains of Italy. The researchers search for dark matter by recording tiny flashes of light created when particles interact with xenon inside the detector. And while XENON1T was built to capture the interaction between a dark matter particle and the nucleus of a xenon atom, the detector actually picks up signals from any interactions with the xenon.

Dark Matter –“Emerged From an Eon Before the Big Bang” (Weekend Feature)

The evidence for xenon decay was produced as a proton inside the nucleus of a xenon atom converted into a neutron. In most elements subject to decay, that happens when one electron is pulled into the nucleus. But a proton in a xenon atom must absorb two electrons to convert into a neutron, an event called “double-electron capture.”

Double-electron capture only happens when two of the electrons are right next to the nucleus at just the right time, Brown said, which is “a rare thing multiplied by another rare thing, making it ultra-rare.”

When the ultra-rare happened, and a double-electron capture occurred inside the detector, instruments picked up the signal of electrons in the atom re-arranging to fill in for the two that were absorbed into the nucleus.

“Ultralight” –‘Dark Matter Exists Beyond the Standard Model’

“Electrons in double-capture are removed from the innermost shell around the nucleus, and that creates room in that shell,” said Brown. “The remaining electrons collapse to the ground state, and we saw this collapse process in our detector.”

The achievement is the first time scientists have measured the half-life of this xenon isotope based on a direct observation of its radioactive decay.

“This is a fascinating finding that advances the frontiers of knowledge about the most fundamental characteristics of matter,” said Curt Breneman, dean of the School of Science. “Dr. Brown’s work in calibrating the detector and ensuring that the xenon is scrubbed to the highest possible standard of purity was critical to making this important observation.”

Very Weird Galaxies –“The Absence of Dark Matter is Unprecedented”

The XENON Collaboration includes more than 160 scientists from Europe, the United States, and the Middle East, and, since 2002, has operated three successively more sensitive liquid xenon detectors in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. XENON1T, the largest detector of its type ever built, acquired data from 2016 until December 2018, when it was switched off. Scientists are currently upgrading the experiment for the new XENONnT phase, which will feature an active detector mass three times larger than XENON1T. Together with a reduced background level, this will boost the detector’s sensitivity by an order of magnitude.

Three years ago researchers were excited to find that a galaxy at the heart of cluster Abell 3827 shown at the top of the page that appeared to have separated from the dark matter that surrounded it. New research suggests this is incorrect. (Nasa/ESA/Richard Massey)

The Daily Galaxy via Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Dark Matter And Black Holes

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘WIRED’ NEWS)

 

WHEN IT COMES to the nature of dark matter, astronomers are still largely, well, in the dark. The existence of this mysterious substance was hypothesized more than 40 years ago to explain discrepancies between the calculations of how galaxies ought to behave, based on their mass, and what was actually observed. In short, it seemed like mass was missing. So Vera Rubin, the astronomer who first discovered this discrepancy, conjured an invisible substance that is far more abundant than “normal” matter and acts as the scaffolding for the large-scale structure of the universe. Today we call it dark matter.

Yet decades of hunting for the elusive dark matter particle still have not yielded direct evidence of its existence. Most cosmologists still believe that dark matter must exist, but some have splintered off to propose other explanations that explain away dark matter by modifying our understanding of gravity.

But two findings are now casting doubt on the modified gravity explanation. In March, a team of astronomers led by Yale professor Pieter van Dokkum and his graduate student Shany Danieli published two papers, one confirming the existence of a galaxy that appears to have almost no dark matter and the other announcing the discovery of a second galaxy of this type. The irony, the researchers say, is that the seeming lack of dark matter in these galaxies is strong evidence that it exists.

The reason they believe these galaxies have no dark matter is that their dynamics can be predicted using our traditional theories of gravity. The discrepancy of the “missing mass” that’s seen in most galaxies isn’t present here, meaning there’s no need for dark matter to explain their behavior. And it means that the modified version of gravity proposed by some cosmologists doesn’t predict these galaxies’ movements as cleanly as good old Newtonian physics.

The discovery of these dark-matter-free galaxies traces back to 2014, when van Dokkum and his colleagues finished building Dragonfly, a new kind of telescope, made of off-the-shelf telephoto camera lenses, that specializes in observing extremely faint celestial objects. Only a year after its first light, Dragonfly discovered a new galaxy characterized by an extreme lack of stars relative to its size. Known as an ultra-diffuse galaxy, this ghostly celestial object had roughly the same mass as our Milky Way, but only one hundredth of one percent of that mass could be attributed to “normal” matter like stars. In other words, van Dokkum and his colleagues had discovered a galaxy made of 99.99 percent dark matter.

While this galaxy was unique, its existence isn’t entirely surprising. Most cosmologists think that dense collections of dark matter act as a sort of seed for the formation of large celestial objects like galaxies. The general idea, says Anže Slosar, an astrophysicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is that once a collection of dark matter reaches a critical density, it collapses under its own gravity and forms a so-called “dark matter halo.” This halo, in turn, gravitationally attracts hydrogen gas to its center, where it begins to form stars and, eventually, galaxies. The mass of a dark matter halo varies from galaxy to galaxy, but it seemed like every galaxy must have at least some dark matter to keep its form. Indeed, this assumption was precisely what made Dragonfly’s next discovery so surprising.

In 2016, van Dokkum and his colleagues at Yale discovered NGC 1052-DF2, an ultra-diffuse galaxy that appeared to contain little to no dark matter at all. Last year, when the Yale astronomers published their results in the journal Nature, their peers in the cosmological community were incredulous. This was the first galaxy ever discovered that appeared to lack any dark matter, and as Carl Sagan rightly observed, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”—which is what many cosmologists thought the Yale team was missing.

University of Pennsylvania astrophysicist Robyn Sanderson says the skepticism about DF2 sprang mostly from the limited amount of data used to draw the conclusion. In this case, the Yale team was using data from just 10 star clusters observed over a period of two nights. This meant it was possible they were overlooking key details of the star clusters’ motion, which would distort their estimations of the galaxy’s mass—and undermine their claim that it lacked dark matter.

The Yale researchers recognized this possible source of error themselves when they published their paper on DF2. The only way to resolve this conundrum was to make more detailed measurements or to find another galaxy with characteristics similar to DF2. In March, the Yale team published two papers that did exactly these things.

The first paper offered more refined measurements of stellar velocities within DF2. This time, rather than just measuring the velocities of 10 star clusters, van Dokkum and Danieli used the Keck telescope in Hawaii to observe the velocities of the stars within the star clusters. This approach produced far more data that reinforced the team’s earlier conclusion that the galaxy lacked dark matter.

The other paper announced the discovery of a second galaxy, DF4, which also appears to have little, if any, dark matter. Not only does this increase the odds that the DF2 observations are accurate, it also means such ultra-diffuse galaxies might not be so rare. The fact that two were found in quick succession, Danieli says, was “really reassuring.” Nevertheless, she says “it’s still too early to say whether they are super rare or quite common.” The team will begin observing other nearby ultra-diffuse galaxies next month in an effort to answer this question.

But that won’t resolve the mystery of how these strange galaxies came to exist in the first place. Theoretical cosmologists will have to run simulations to determine how a galaxy can lose its dark matter, she says. One leading theory involves tidal interactions, which is astronomer-speak for when the gravitational forces of two neighboring galaxies pull material from each galaxy and distort them. DF2 and DF4 are both near the galaxy NGC 1052, which makes it a strong candidate for the galaxy that stole their dark matter.

However they came to be, Danieli argues that the existence of these galaxies is a blow to the modified gravityexplanation for why most galaxies don’t behave as we’d expect.

Known as modified Newtonian dynamics, or MOND, this theory recasts gravity such that it has different effects at the galactic scale. Although MOND has successfully predicted the stellar dynamics of hundreds of galaxies, most of which are relatively isolated, it must be able to predict the dynamics of all galaxies to dethrone dark matter as the going cosmological theory.

As Slosar explains it, the discovery of DF2 and DF4 strengthens the case for the existence of a dark matter particle because it means that it can be separated from normal matter. Because these galaxies behave in line with standard gravitational theory, using the equations discovered by Newton and Kepler, they present a challenge to MOND.

“If you find galaxies, some of which have a lot of dark matter and some of which have a little dark matter, you can’t explain it with the loss of gravity unless you’re willing to say that one part of the universe has a different law of gravity than another part, which is just silly,” Slosar says. “The entire point of physics is to find unified laws that are always there. This is why it is an argument for the existence of dark matter.”

So does the existence of galaxies devoid of dark matter pose an existential threat for MOND? Stacy McGaugh, an astronomer at Case Western Reserve University, doesn’t think so. “When DF2 was first discovered, it was portrayed as a huge problem for MOND,” McGaugh says. “On more careful analysis, it turned out that the prediction of MOND was spot-on what was observed.”

The analysis by McGaugh and his colleagues of DF2’s implications for MOND hinges on the galaxy’s proximity to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC1052. Under a set of “reasonable” assumptions, paired with equations from MOND, McGaugh and his colleagues found that NGC1052’s gravitational effects on DF2 would return stellar velocities similar to what van Dokkum and Danieli actually observed. Although he hasn’t had the chance to repeat this analysis for DF4, McGaugh says it also “appears to be consistent with MOND, since it is likely affected by NGC 1052.”

The existence of these galaxies poses a number of vexing problems for the theory of galactic formation, which must account for how a galaxy can come to be violently stripped of its dark matter and still retain the relative order seen, for example, in the presence of star clusters in DF2 and DF4. Will further observations of ultra-diffuse galaxies resolve the dark matter debate? Probably not, but they will, at least, shed some light on the matter.


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